I’ve been a residence don (otherwise known as a residence advisor) for the past year at one of the colleges at U of T, and as part of that experience, we had access to a college cafeteria for all our meals. It was known for being one of the better cafeterias on campus, but still, so many of the meals tasted the same, and when it came to ‘Asian cuisine”, all I remember are endless variations of dishes with brown sauces and vegetables. And so after that year of often uninteresting, non spicy food, being in Indonesia and Singapore has been an awakening. Everything is new and unfamiliar, and yet so so delicious! I have a small appetite and I’m not an adventurous eater, so I tend to have small dishes when I eat out (which is rarely) and my own cooking adventures mostly involve trying to recreate the flavour of my Mum’s amazing cooking, which has always been my favourite cuisine. I’ve never been curious to try out new cookbooks.
That has changed because the meals I’ve had on this trip have been incredible. Every morsel explodes with flavour, you can taste the quality and freshness of the ingredients, and the juices are refreshing and delicious drinks that combine new fruits and old in unexpected and wonderful ways. I never recognise the dishes when we’re ordering, but with each day my excitement and willingness to try new things expands, and I am genuinely excited to try cooking new things when we get back. And speaking of fruit, though I haven’t tried local Indonesian fruits yet from the market, in Singapore whether it was a new fruit like rambutans or something I had tried before like papaya, the flavour and deliciousness of the fruit was heightened. Being here has made me realise how much flavour we lose when fruit travels thousands of miles to get to Canada. I had no idea food could be such a pleasurable happy experience, particularly when you don’t have to worry about whether you’re ordering something Halal off the menu. You can share with friends and try different things, and its all good.
The other thing that is so unusual about Indonesia is the style of the restaurants. We’ve been staying away from roadside stalls and have been eating at reasonable local restaurants, but everywhere we’ve gone has had a beautiful decor, with care given to the details of the restaurant. Today (May 22) a group of us went out for dinner to a local restaurant called the Hummingbird, and it was as if we had been transported to a hip trendy Toronto cafe. Everything from the light fixtures to the wall decorations to the outside decorations was stunning (I actually can’t think of a Toronto equiv) and the beauty of the surroundings and the quality of the food made it a memorable meal. We were so happy eating we barely spoke.
Culinary adventures aside, we had an excellent day in Bandung. We had a beautiful breakfast at our hotel, and then left in the morning to visit the offices of the city planning board. While we were there one of the planners in the office gave us a presentation about the local issues in Bandung, and then we had an open discussion afterwards where we asked questions about Bandung to our heart’s content. It was an amazing discussion, and our host was one of the most charismatic, charming people we’ve met so far, and made really funny jokes that had us laughing throughout the session (Who is this Richard Florida person? All I know is Beyonce and Lady Gaga). One of the things that struck me from the session (out of many) was that one of the goals of the Mayor’s office is to have a city where people believe in God. Though 90% of Indonesia is Muslim, this goal does not necessarily relate to Islam, but simply having a faith based city in general. We asked more about this, and were told that “Indonesia is not a secular country, but it’s not a religious country either. It is in the middle. What is that middle space? That is Indonesia” which is was interesting to think about, and something I want to investigate further.
Indonesia is also teaching me that Islam changes according to cultural context. I generally don’t shake hands with men I’m not related to for example, and in Toronto, often when I meet a man who is Muslim, he greets me by nodding in my direction and placing his hand over his heart. It’s a gesture I really like, and I often do the hand over heart thing myself without realizing it. In Indonesia, I instinctively started greeting people the same way, and realised quickly that it’s not an Indonesian gesture, and the cultural context I’m in has changed. I’ve also noticed most people here do shake hands so I may be offending the people that we’re meeting and I need to re-evaluate how I handle introductions here.
We also learnt about how transportation is a major issue in Bandung, and that it is anticipated that the city should have a cable car within the next year that is funded by the private sector. In addition, there are plans for buses and a subway, in addition to other forms of transportation. Buses are difficult because the roads here are short and narrow with many junctions, and so the Ankut (parashuttles) are used most frequently here, since walking is not really a feasible transportation option. What is interesting is that Bandung changed with each colonial presence, and so it’s only in the seventies that they were able to start their own planning process.
There was a lot mentioned during the visit, but all in all, it was an informative and useful time. Afterwards we walked in the heat (I though I would collapse but we made it!) to lunch at a Sundanese restaurant, and then walked back (again such intense heat) to the hotel, and thought about our research and got to know each better till our nighttime dinner adventure. Looking forward to what the next day brings!